Farewell from Fair Isle

Malachy Tallack's last blog from Britain's remotest place reflects on a very different way of living


When I began writing these short pieces for the New Statesman a year ago, I was reacting in part to what I felt were misrepresentations and misunderstandings of life in the Northern Isles that were appearing with some regularity in the national media.

The islands, and Fair Isle in particular, were portrayed as somehow old fashioned – relics of an era long since forgotten elsewhere. The people who lived here were too often caricatured as naïve and idealistic, backward-looking, or, worse, as mere museum pieces, existing solely for the entertainment of our visitors.

I wanted to write an alternative story; one that did not treat island life as an eccentric curiosity, or as a polar opposite to the ‘normal life’ that is lived elsewhere. I wanted to write about the realities of living here – the problems as well as the pleasures – and to do this without adding too much of a romantic sheen. I also wanted to ask myself what exactly it is that makes places like Fair Isle different, and specifically what it is about this particular community that visitors and islanders find so refreshing and worthwhile. On this last point I am quite sure that I have not succeeded, but I wanted to offer here a few final thoughts.

There is a common misconception about Fair Isle’s community, which I think is perpetuated by the tendency to consider it as being a cohesive unit, rather than a nebulous group of individuals. Fair Isle is not a community that is sustained by any kind of heady idealism, or by a desire for ‘like-minded’ communal living. It is a community of individuals, often with very different opinions and ideas, who simply choose to consider their neighbours’ interests as well as their own.

We do this, I think, for two reasons, both of which involve a recognition of something that can elsewhere remain hidden. Firstly, there is the recognition that each person has some sort of role, no matter how ill-defined, within the community. Many of us have jobs that are needed for the maintenance of essential services; others may simply offer a different way of looking at things. But each of us relies, quite literally, upon a network of other people, sharing this island with us. While this fact remains true wherever you live, it is often difficult to see.

The second reason is that people here recognise that the community, as a social group, is itself worth sustaining – that there is something here to sustain. Most people feel no need to define that something, just to acknowledge it. It is related, I would suggest, to an entirely natural and instinctive desire to be part of a functioning social group. After all, that is how human beings, as social animals, have evolved. But it is a feeling that is increasingly hard to find in other places today.

The community works so long as most people, most of the time, are able to remember and accept that their own interests are not always consistent with those of their neighbours, and that everyone benefits by acting with this in mind. This seems to me to be an entirely healthy and natural social order, and one that is completely alien to the hierarchical structures of power and wealth that now binds society together throughout most of the West. It is this naturalness that I think visitors notice when they come here, even for a short time; the feeling that, somehow, this is how it is meant to be.

Anyone who travels in the remote parts of Scotland, and particularly in the Western and Northern Isles, will have come across the evidence of abandonment. Old crofts and cottages lie derelict, ruined. Whole villages and islands that once were populated are now entirely empty of people. It can be a depressing sight. This island could very easily have gone the same way. But it did not.

For me, Fair Isle is a place of great hope. People here work hard to maintain something that they truly believe in, something that they cannot find anywhere else. What they find on this island is a real community of individuals, a natural and native order of things, and a satisfaction that springs not so much from a way of life, but a way of living.

Many thanks to Dave Wheeler for all his wonderful photographs.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty
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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue